Why are fermented foods good for our health?
Published 27 Nov 2021 • By Candice Salomé
Since the discovery of the role of the intestinal flora (microbiota) on our health, more and more is being said about fermented foods. They are said to be full of micro-organisms capable of supporting the balance of the microbiota and increasing the nutritional quality of our diet.
But what are fermented foods exactly? How do they really benefit our health? How can we incorporate them into our meals?
We tell you everything in our article!
What is fermented food?
Fermented foods are the ones that have undergone a transformation process with the participation of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast or filamentous fungi.
Fermentation is an ancient technique that lost ground with the arrival of refrigerators, freezers and sterilization. This technique was previously used to preserve foods and give them special taste, texture and appearance.
There are many types of fermentation. The best known are lactic fermentation and alcoholic fermentation. A large majority of foods can ferment (vegetables, fruit, milk, cereal, meat, etc.) spontaneously under certain storage conditions (using salt, protecting them from light or oxygen, etc.), or in a controlled manner when microorganisms are introduced deliberately (kefir, leaven, rennet, etc.). For example, sauerkraut, yogurt, cheese, wine, vinegar, pickles, or even sourdough bread are fermented foods. Fermentation causes a so-called “positive degradation”, or “maturing”.
During fermentation process, food becomes more and more sour because its pH changes. This prevents food degradation and the development of unwanted bacteria, yeast and fungi. When pH is sufficiently acidic (around 4), the preparation becomes stable and can be stored for a long period of time. But more importantly, such food has a lot of positive effects on our health.
What are the health benefits of fermented food?
Fermentation improves food digestibility and its nutritional value. Ferments produce such useful compounds as vitamins and polyphenols, which increase antioxydant activities and contribute to cardiovascular health.
For example, sauerkraut is much better supplied with vitamin C than unfermented cabbage. It is also easier to digest because the fibers obtained after fermentation are less irritating to the intestine.
Moreover, by acidifying the food bolus, lactic fermentation releases mineral salts form cereals allowing better absorption of calcium, iron or magnesium.
Some studies have also shown that fermented tofu contains enzymes that dissolve blood clots responsible for myocardial infarction (heart attack).
Certain bacteria and yeast involved in food fermentation enrich the intestinal flora (microbiota). They are natural probiotics, that have real health benefits, as they boost the immune system and improve gut health.
As for cheese, thanks to all the microorganisms it contains, it has numerous anti-inflammatory properties, useful for the prevention of certain diseases. While cheeses like mozzarella and fresh cheese do not contain lots of microorganisms, semi-hard cheeses (such as Emmental), those with a bloomy rind (such as camembert or brie), washed rind (such as époisses) or blue mould cheeses (blue, roquefort) present an interesting microbial diversity. Do not hesitate to eat their rind, if it is thin and clean, because it contains the greatest number of bacteria and mould, which are good for our health.
What foods should we include in our daily diet and how can we ferment them at home?
Sauerkraut is rich in vitamin C and is very digestible. It is easy to make: just take a cabbage, chop it, and place it in a jar filled with water and salt. And let it ferment!
Cucumbers, lemons, gherkins, onions, turnips, beets, radishes or carrots… you can try various pickled vegetables. Thanks to their fermentation, they are rich in vitamins and antioxidants.
Sourdough bread makes certain minerals, such as iron and magnesium, much more easily absorbed by our body.
Fermented dairy products
Fermented dairy products are much more digestible than the unfermented ones. The lactose concentration in crème fraîche, yogurts and cheese will drop or even disappear completely under the effects of fermentation.
Some people who are not able to fully digest milk are considered to be lactose intolerant (most of the time), which means that they are intolerant to sugar found in milk. However, they can digest fermented dairy products much more easily.
Milk kefir is a very digestible preparation which boosts the immune system. To get milk kefir, you just need to ferment kefir grains in milk. Kefir grains are small white grains that contain billions of microorganisms that turn milk into kefir. Thus, as with the fermented dairy products, the fermentation process will reduce the amount of lactose in milk, which will make it much more digestible.
Water kefir is full of vitamins and antioxidants. Kefir grains, added to sweetened water and fruit, increase health benefits of the fruit.
Fermentation makes food more digestible and increases its nutritional value. However, there are no miracle foods. Fermented foods should be part of a balanced diet. And, of course, it is essential to moderate your consumption of beverages that undergo alcoholic fermentation, such as wine or beer!